The World of Yesterday: An Autobiography (Welt Von Gestern)

views updated


Memoir by Stefan Zweig, 1941

Stefan Zweig's autobiography, The World of Yesterday (1943; Welt von gestern, 1941) is a work not so much of his own life but of the world in which he grew up, physically, intellectually, and culturally. Heimat for him meant the creations of the artistic and intellectual elite, as well as their creators, including Raoul Auernheimer, Hermann Bahr, Sigmund Freud, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Karl Kraus, Gustav Mahler, Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin, Felix Salten, Arthur Schnitzler, Arnold Schönberg, Richard Strauss, Émile Verhaeren, Bruno Walter, and actors and actresses such as Josef Kainz, Alexander Moissi, and Max Pallenberg, to name but a few Zweig mentioned and who determined the cultural climate of the fin de siécle period until the First World War, a dream-castle era, as Zweig called it. Afterward, between 1919 and 1934, came the Salzburg years for Zweig, followed by the years in exile, first in England and then in South America.

This world of security, as Zweig titled the first chapter, refers primarily to the educated upper middle class in Vienna, specifically the Jewish segment of it. Representatives of this middle-class intellectual group created a refined culture that was more aesthetically inclined than political. Within the framework of Austrian liberalism, they devoted their life to art rather than engaged in politics. There was an emphasis on individualism and an adoration for genius—extraordinary people who were the great movers in the world—the "genius of humanity," as Zweig subtitled his book on Albert Schweitzer.

This hero worship excluded the masses. In retrospect, Zweig admitted to this shortcoming later on in his autobiography: "The masses, which had silently and obediently permitted the liberal middle classes to retain the leadership for decades, suddenly became restless, organized themselves and demanded their rights … We did not have the slightest interest in politics and social problems: what did these shrill wranglings mean in our lives? The city was aroused at the elections, and we went to the libraries. The masses rose, and we wrote and discussed poetry. We did not see the fiery signs on the wall … And only decades later, when roof and walls fell in upon us, did we realize that the foundations had long since been undermined and that together with the new century the decline of individual freedom in Europe had begun." This mass movement had unwanted political consequences. The result was not foreseen, and in that respect Zweig showed a lack of political acuity and foresight, as did many of his contemporaries. He admitted to this shortsightedness at the beginning of the section titled "Incipit Hitler": "It remains an irrefragable law of history that contemporaries are denied a recognition of the early beginnings of the great movements which determine their lives." It is the tragedy not only of Zweig but also of other great creators in his era that they devoted their life more to their art and the perfection of their own humanistic education than taking part in political events. Zweig, according to Donald Daviau, can be termed an "impressionistic aesthete" who had "no heart for coping with unpleasantness, aggressiveness, and violence, and as a pacifist he refused to fight for any reason: not for his principles, not for his ideals, not for his freedom, not even for his life. His defense was public silence, withdrawal into his work, and when all else failed, flight."

Being silent did not stop the construction of the concentration camps and the Holocaust. Zweig escaped the concentration camp, but it may be said that he was a victim of the Holocaust, according to the definition offered by Ernestine Schlant in her book The Language of Silence : "By 'Holocaust' I mean more than the annihilation of millions of human beings under hitherto unimaginable bestiality; I include in this definition the mechanisms, behavior, and attitudes in all of Nazi-occupied Europe for the purposes of hunting down and rounding up Jews to murder them." These attitudes were already present in the aesthetically pleasing pre-Hitler World of Yesterday.

—Gerd K. Schneider

About this article

The World of Yesterday: An Autobiography (Welt Von Gestern)

Updated About content Print Article